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Thursday, December 22, 2016

New Year's Playvolution: 10 Ways to Jumpstart a Playful, Creative 2017

Photo by "G" jewels g is for grandma (Flickr)

As I reflect on 2016, I marvel at all the fun play times my girls and I have shared. I'm also looking forward to making a New Year's "playvolution" and enjoying even more play this next year. Here are 10 activities, resolutions, and ideas that will jump-start our playful, creative 2017. Will you join us?

Buy a YMCA Membership

Our entire family will have an easier time staying active year-round when we join the YMCA. It offers a variety of community play and fitness opportunities for all age groups and fitness levels.

Give Active Gifts

It should come as no surprise that my favorite holiday gifts promote play and activity. Bicycles, snowshoes, jump ropes, and other fitness-oriented gifts can motivate everyone on your gift list to play and explore.

Babysit Other Kids

Whenever I spend time playing with kids, I find myself relaxing and having fun. I also learn new games and love how kids have a different perspective on life. Volunteer to babysit at local community activities or offer your services to your neighbors to add more play to your life.

Take a Group Class

I love my yoga class! This year, I'm also committed to taking a Zumba class, and my older daughter wants to learn how to line-dance. What type of group class would you like to try? Check your local rec or community center for affordable classes that interest you.

Make Art

There's something about art that brings out the kid in me! We always have a stocked art supply box with crayons, clay, and other supplies, and it sparks our creativity. As you and your family finger-paint self-portraits, create collages of your favorite things, and draw unique animals, remember to have fun and not worry about coloring outside of the lines as you create.

Learn a New Game

My dad was the jacks champion in his childhood class, and he was thrilled when my girls asked him to teach them how to play. What new games could your family learn to play this year? Ask grandparents and friends for suggestions and find new games at your local toy store.

Set up a Neighborhood Sports League

What games do your neighbors enjoy playing? Start a neighborhood football, basketball, soccer, or hockey league and meet regularly to practice and play. You'll have fun, build community relationships, and stay active as a family.

Train for a 5K

Several charities in our community host 5K races to raise funds. We decided as a family to train for these races and get active as we support good causes.

Adopt a Shelter Animal

If your family is ready to adopt a pet, visit the local animal shelter and find a new furry friend. Caring for and loving a pet encourages physical activity, relieves stress, and builds responsibility.

Schedule More Play Time With Your Kids

On New Year's Eve, I sit down with a glass of sparkling cider and my planner and record birthdays and other important events. I also schedule time to play with my girls every day. Prioritizing play is important to me, and I'm more likely to make sure it happens when I see it printed on my daily schedule.

This year is going to be the biggest play year ever for my family! I'm so excited about my New Year's playvolutions. Which of these 10 ideas will you use to jump-start your playful and creative 2017?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, December 19, 2016

Wonderland Walk: 9 Tips for Safe and Fun Winter Hiking

Photo by Francesco Doglio (Flickr)

There's something magical about winter hiking. The white snow, fresh air, and invigorating exercise excite and motivate my girls and me! We started enjoying wonderland walks when my girls were babies, and you can, too, with these tips to keep your entire family safe and comfortable.

Start Winter Hiking When Your Kids Are Small

Hiking with kids is more challenging in cold weather. I remember how long it took to get my girls bundled in their snowsuits and boots! The effort pays off, though, when you see their wonder at finding animal tracks in the snow or seeing a colorful bird along the trail. I'm glad we started hiking when my girls were young. Now, they've built their endurance and can tackle harder trails and see even more winter wonders.

Protect Your Baby

I'm convinced that my girls love hiking today in part because I took them when they were babies. We took three important precautions, though. First, they always wore a dry diaper and layers, and I covered their exposed skin with clothing or a blanket. Second, we used a baby carrier that kept them warm and allowed both of us to enjoy the sights. Third, we stopped every 20 minutes to make sure they were still warm and dry.

Pick a Route Carefully

One of our favorite summer trails crosses a stream and features several steep inclines. That trail is definitely unsafe and off-limits when it's covered in snow and ice. Instead, we choose trials that are safe for our entire family. I consider my kids' stamina, whether the trail is accessible to emergency personnel, and how much time we have to hike.

Tell Someone Where You're Hiking

Thankfully, we've never been stranded on a winter hike, but people get lost, take a wrong path, or suffer an injury while hiking every year. Plan for this possibility by telling someone where you'll be hiking, who's with you, and when you expect to return.

Check the Weather

Last year, my girls and I didn't check the weather outlook and had to finish a hike in a freezing rain storm. We learned our lesson! Now, I always check the forecast for expected weather changes, precipitation, wind speeds, and daylight hours. Remember to check how the altitude may affect conditions, too. It's totally OK to postpone your hike because of unsafe weather conditions.

Carry Life-Saving Gear

Be prepared! Assemble essential life-saving gear and have everyone carry a few items in their backpack.

Here's our list. You can adjust it to meet your needs.

  • Trail map and compass
  • Fire-starter and flares
  • Multi-purpose tool
  • Extra clothing
  • Flashlight or headlamp with lithium batteries
  • Food and water
  • Rope
  • First aid supplies including sunscreen, pain reliever, and bandages
  • Emergency shelter

Dress in Layers

My girls and I have learned over the years that layers and covering exposed skin are the keys to staying warm during cold winter hikes. We always wear these five layers to help us stay dry and prevent hypothermia:

  • Nylon or polyester wicking layer next to your skin pulls away moisture
  • Warming layer of wool, polyester, or nylon provides insulation
  • Waterproof layer protects you from rain, snow, and wind
  • Hat and gloves or mittens conserve body heat
  • Goggles or sunglasses prevent eye strain from sun and wind

Wear the Right Shoes

I learned a valuable footwear lesson the first year I hiked in the winter. My feet got cold because I wore only one pair of socks, and I kept slipping in the wet snow in my traditional hiking shoes. Now, I always wear two pairs of socks. The first layer pulls moisture away from the skin, and the second pair insulates your feet. Then, I wear boots that are designed for the trail and weather conditions. They should be broken in, too, so you don't get blisters.

Include Your Pet

Dogs love winter hiking as much as kids. I have friends who even take their dog on overnight winter hikes! If you decide to take your pet hiking, confirm that it's capable of a vigorous winter hike, and follow these etiquette and safety rules.

Verify that your dog is allowed on the trail, since some public parks do not allow dogs. Then, keep your dog on a leash and under control so your dog doesn't chase other hikers or wild animals. Carry water and food for your pet, too. You may also invest in a dog vest, coat, and boots that protect your dog from the elements.

Winter hiking offers your family an amazing opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. With these nine tips, you can stay safe and comfortable and have fun. What other wonderland walk tips do you suggest?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, December 12, 2016

7 Ways That Laughter Fuels the Mind, Body, and Soul

Photo by Ben Francis (Flickr)

Have you ever listened to kids laugh? It's hysterical! Hearing my girls laugh always makes me laugh, and their laughter prompted me to study the topic this week. I found seven ways laughter fuels our minds, bodies, and souls, helps children develop, and leads to grown-up happiness and success. Let's examine these seven ways together.

Laughter Reduces Stress

My stress level was through the roof last Wednesday as I juggled a large work project, a school conference, and a sick child. I felt miserable until a co-worker told a funny joke during lunch. I started laughing and instantly felt less stressed.

There's a reason I felt that way. Laughter is clinically recognized to affect four stress-related hormones: cortisol, dopamine, epinephrine, and growth hormone. Ultimately, it relieves tension and reduces stress. A good belly laugh does wonders for helping kids and adults manage stress successfully. I know it works for me!

Laughter Decreases Pain

As toddlers, my daughters fell often, which meant plenty of skinned knees and tears. To calm them, I told funny jokes and stories. Their laughter didn't completely erase their pain, but science shows that laughter does decrease pain. My girls were able to endure all of those skinned knees and even handle aches they feel today when they laugh.

Laughter Improves Respiration

One of my daughter's friends suffers from chronic asthma. Her mom frequently invites my daughter over for play dates because the girls always end up laughing. She knows that laughter stimulates our lungs and supporting muscles. As we breathe in oxygen-rich air during a fit of the giggles, our lungs expand, and respiration improves. My daughter's friend and anyone with breathing challenges can be healthier because of laughter.

Laughter Strengthens Relationships

According to researchers, we're 30 times more likely to laugh when we're in a group. I know I always laugh more at funny stories when I'm with other people. Laughter is infectious. It also erases age, culture, and demographic boundaries and helps us bond with friends, family, and strangers. I love how laughter strengthens interpersonal relationships, whether we're kids or adults.

Laughter Improves Coping Skills

Life is tough for kids and adults. Maybe your family is facing a challenge like difficult homework, family drama, or chronic illness. Laughter may be the key you need to cope. Humor helps us see things from a positive perspective and encourages us to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Laughter improves our ability to cope with challenges and be successful in life, so watch videos of animal antics, read the comics pages in the newspaper, and tell funny jokes every day.

Laughter Reduces Blood Pressure

At every doctor appointment, the nurse checks my girls' blood pressure. The numbers are usually pretty good, possibly because we laugh so much! Frequent laughter improves blood flow as it dilates blood vessels, increases oxygen intake, and improves blood circulation. Our risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack decreases when our blood pressure drops, and that's a compelling reason to laugh more often.

Laughter Boosts Immunity

My uncle experienced a health scare last year, and laughter was a tool that helped him recover. His doctors always told jokes and encouraged him to watch funny movies. Laughter played a role in healing my uncle because it boosts our immune systems. We get and stay healthier thanks to laughter.

Have you laughed yet today? For kids and adults, laughter provides many benefits as it fuels our mind, body, and soul, helps kids' development, and increases adult happiness and success. I encourage you to make laughter a regular part of your daily routine and see the ways it helps you and your family!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Building Brilliance: 7 Benefits of Constructive Play

Photo by Howard Lewis Ship (Flickr)

Lego bricks, K'Nex, cups, and boxes are a few of my girls' favorite constructive toys. They enjoy manipulating, connecting, and building. And while they play, they gain seven valuable benefits. Your kids can have fun building brilliance, too, thanks to constructive play.

Hone Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills describe your child's ability to control their hands and fingers as they move, grip, and write. These skills improve when kids play with construction toys. For example, I've watched my girls grow from barely being able to stack two blocks to building elaborate buildings. Clicking pieces into place, manipulating blocks, and holding blocks and pieces of all sizes hones their fine motor skills and prepares them to dress themselves, throw a ball, and hold a pencil.

Improve Problem-Solving Skills

The other day, my daughter tried to build a gangplank on the pirate ship she made out of blocks. Her first five ideas didn't work, but she kept brainstorming and finally found a solution. I'm grateful that her toys teach her how to solve problems. Because of constructive play, she's learning to think outside of the box, think quickly on her feet, be flexible, and keep trying until her vision becomes reality and she achieves her goal.

Enhance Academic Skills

Did you know that construction toys actually help our kids succeed in school? My younger daughter's teacher uses blocks in the classroom, and I sometimes pull them out to help with homework. As kids connect blocks and build objects, they practice:

  • Math: Counting, addition, subtraction, and basic geometry all come into play.
  • Reading and writing: Spacial awareness improves a child's ability to read and write.
  • Science: Tinkering and experimenting, kids explore cause and effect, hypothesize, and develop curiosity.

Expand Imagination

Constructive play allows kids to create whatever fantasy they imagine. Last week, my girls built a castle complete with a moat and dragon. This week, they built a tall spaceship. And as they play, they expand their imaginations and creativity that will prepare them to face real-world challenges and problems that require unique solutions.

Teach Focus and Patience

Most kids, my girls included, are not naturally focused or patient. They need these important skills to succeed in school, relationships, and every area of life, though. That's another benefit of constructive play. Kids have to focus as they build a project from start to finish and work carefully so they don't knock over their creation. As they play, they actually become more focused, patient, and prepared for life.

Encourage Cooperative Play

Blocks are one toy that brings kids together. They're ideal for boys and girls, and my girls often work together to create elaborate sets for their stories and search for the small pieces they need. This social interaction during constructive play encourages them to be cooperative, work as a team, and self-regulate. With these skills, my girls are better friends and teammates in their everyday social interactions.

Boost Confidence

I remember when my daughter built her first castle from blocks. She was only four, but she squealed with delight and insisted that I take a picture of it. She was so proud, and that confidence gave her courage to continue to build even bigger masterpieces. It encourages me to see how my girls' confidence grows as they play with constructive toys!

Constructive play offers seven key benefits and builds brilliance. It's an ideal way to play. What other benefits do these toys provide your kids?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, November 28, 2016

7 Benefits of Structured Play

Photo by San Jose Library (Flickr)

What do puzzles, Simon Says, and basketball have in common? They are all games my girls enjoy, and they are examples of structured play, activities that can be led by an instructor for the purpose of teaching a lesson or skill. This type of play is different from free play (kids choose the activity and play without adult guidance) or risky play (roughhousing, climbing, and racing). While all types of play are important, structured play provides seven key benefits and allows our kids to have fun as they learn.

Nudges Kids Out of Their Comfort Zones

When left to their own devices, my girls would play the same familiar games and with the same familiar toys. It's important, though, that they stretch their wings and get out of their comfort zones sometimes. Structured play introduces kids to new games and new playmates. Nudging them out of their comfort zone ultimately helps them become well-rounded and more confident individuals.

Improves Social Skills

One of my daughters doesn't enjoy group play with strangers. She prefers playing with people she knows. In her case, structured play at school, the playground, and summer camp encourages her to make new friends and be more social. I love watching her blossom socially, learn to communicate, and develop important social skills as she plays.

Teaches Teamwork

Life is filled with opportunities for our kids to work in teams. Structured play teaches kids how to respect the abilities and opinions of others, exchange ideas, and put themselves aside in favor of the greater good and the team. I appreciate band, board games, and soccer as three examples of structured activities that teach my girls teamwork. This type of play also equips them to be comfortable leading others and following, two essential teamwork traits.

Cultivates Imagination and Creativity

My girls have big imaginations and well-developed creativity in part because I encourage them to consider imaginary scenes as they play. They become spaceships while zooming through the play room picking up toys, and they turn into minnows while I'm the shark during tag. Even though structured play includes adult direction, many games and activities require kids to be flexible and use their imaginations and creativity. With these skills, kids have fun and cultivate the ability to think outside the box in daily life.

Hones Problem-Solving Skills

When faced with a challenge during a board game, kids have to consider different strategies for solving the problem. I will sometimes coach my girls to help them think about how their move will affect the game's outcome, but generally, I let them think through the situation themselves. These situations hone my girls' problem-solving skills. They're better able to come up with solutions in real life because of structured play.

Develops Emotional Skills

Identifying and expressing emotions is a learned skill. Since my girls were toddlers, I've used structured play opportunities to help them identify and express their emotions. Together, we've worked through disappointments over losing at Uno and frustrations over missing puzzle pieces. We've also learned to empathize with others, show kindness, and acknowledge grief as we've played.

Boosts Physical Activity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least 60 minutes of exercise per day for our kids. Use structured play to help your children move. Play hopscotch on the walk home from school, have them run from the laundry room to their bedrooms as they put away laundry, or organize a game of Capture the Flag with the neighbors. This activity can prevent obesity and make sure our kids stay active.

Structured play provides seven key benefits for our kids. It's fun, too! How will you add more structured play time and its benefits into your child's life this week?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, November 25, 2016

How Play Develops Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication Skills

Photo by Bill Benzon (Flickr)

Babies typically say their first word by 12 to 18 months of age, and it sure doesn't take long for their verbal skills to take off! I remember my older daughter talking up a storm by the time she turned two. Meanwhile, my younger daughter preferred non-verbal communication and didn't say her first word until she was almost two. No matter when your kids start to talk, play helps them develop important verbal and non-verbal communication skills in several ways.

Develop the Foundations of Verbal Language

Don't you love hearing babies coo as you sing, read, or talk to them? Those sounds form the foundation of a child's speaking ability. That's why you should talk to babies and kids of all ages often. Babies and toddlers watch your lips and imitate what they hear, so use regular words rather than baby talk. Play plenty of games like patty cake, and read books, too.

Read Body Language

Have you ever noticed how babies watch their caregivers carefully? They're taking mental notes and learning how to read body language, an important non-verbal communication skill. When kids can read body language, they understand that a smile means someone is pleased and crossed arms may mean that a friend is angry. These inferences improve a child's ability to communicate without words.

Express Emotions

I loved watching my young girls squeal with excitement, but I remember their frustrations when they were hungry or tired. I was grateful when they could finally tell me what they were feeling! Play helps kids develop the ability to express their emotions properly. Use puppets, dress-up, and dolls as you expose your kids to different emotions and teach them the right way to express their feelings.

Learn New Vocabulary Words

Preschool was a huge verbal learning experience. It seemed like my daughters learned new words every day as they played with their peers. Kids also learn new words and phrases as they play at home. If possible, introduce a variety of toys to your kids. Their vocabulary will grow as they operate a train, cook on a pretend stove, and draw a spaceship.

Take Turns

While playing with a rattle, babies learn that it makes a sound when they shake it. When toddlers roll a ball to you, they learn that you will roll it back. These two activities are examples of how play teaches cause and effect as well as how to take turns. This foundational skill is essential for communication. It equips kids to be patient, polite, and considerate as they talk with others.

Share Opinions

I've always wanted to empower my girls to share their thoughts and opinions. To do this, they have to know and verbalize what they like. Play is essential for helping kids discover and share their opinions. While enjoying a variety of objects and games, they discover their preference for word, action, or strategy games. They also learn if they like leading, following, or peace-keeping. Make-believe play can even help our kids develop career interests and goals as it equips kids to share opinions on a variety of topics.

I'm a big fan of play for many reasons, including the ways it helps kids develop verbal and nonverbal communication skills. How has play helped your child become a better communicator?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How Can Play Therapy Help Children Heal and Thrive?

Photo by Jeremy Miles (Flickr)

When you think of therapy, do you think of toys, costumes, drawing materials, sand, water, balls, or clay? These fun tools are exactly what play therapists use to help kids grow, thrive, and heal. I've seen it work for many kids, and it makes sense since kids use play to explore the world, learn about life, regulate emotions, and develop their sense of self-worth. Play therapy can help your kids and kids of all ages in several key ways.

Learn to Express Emotions

Instead of using words to tell me how they felt, my young girls stomped their feet when they were angry or squealed in delight when they were excited. It takes maturity and training for kids to verbalize their feelings. That's why play is essential. While playing in a safe environment, children can act out, draw, or verbalize how they feel and discover how to express their emotions every day.

Relieve Stress

Stress is a serious adult problem, but it affects kids, too. They can feel worried, anxious, and stressed about family dynamics, health issues, friendships, and other challenges. Childhood stress can affect their physical health, school performance, and relationships.

During play therapy, kids find stress relief. Not only do they identify and process the causes of their stress, but they also learn how to use play and fun to relieve stress in a natural way.

Work Through Trauma

When kids experience trauma, they often cannot verbalize how they feel. Many adults I know even struggle to work through trauma. So when kids experience something traumatic, they need an age-appropriate way to work through their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Play therapy gives kids the time, space, and resources they need to work through trauma caused by:

  • Relocation
  • Grief and loss
  • Divorce and family dynamic changes
  • Crisis and trauma
  • Hospitalization or chronic illness
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Neglect
  • Natural disasters

If your child experiences one of these traumas, give them access to play therapy. It can assist them in working through the traumatic experience and finding the healing they need and deserve.

Modify Behavior

A few months ago, my daughter experienced several anger outbursts. I was baffled about it until I took her to play therapy. There, she was able to work through her feelings about her best friend moving away.

Almost any behavior can be modified with play therapy. It's useful to address:

  • Anger management
  • Anxiety and phobias
  • Depression
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD)
  • Autism
  • Pervasive developmental, academic, and social problems
  • Physical and learning disabilities
  • Conduct disorders

If your child's behavior has changed, consider play therapy. It's a non-threatening outlet that helps kids find healing and make positive behavioral changes.

Teach Real-Life Coping Skills

We like to shelter our kids from real-life hurts, but as a mom, I know that's impossible. Instead, we can equip them with coping skills that help them grow and mature.

I appreciate how play therapy equips kids to see situations in a new way and discover and rehearse the right way to approach and handle those situations. They can role-play a social circumstance or practice a hobby like cooking or art that allows them to release pent-up emotions and handle life in a positive way. Play therapy also helps kids take responsibility for their actions, solve problems, and become more self-assured about their ability to find solutions to everyday challenges they face in real life.

Develop Social Skills

I watched my girls play with the neighborhood kids this weekend and noted how one kid used intimidation to get his way while another teased her brother until he almost cried. I did intervene in both cases but also realized that these kids need to develop social skills and learn how to relate to others. Play therapy teaches kids how to respect and accept themselves and others. It also cultivates empathy and respect for the feelings, opinions, and thoughts other people have. Learning to relate to people is a skill kids must learn, and play therapy teaches these lessons.

Close Communication Gaps With Parents

Many play therapists understand that parents play a key role in a child's life success. That's why they introduce filial play therapy, where the parents get involved. Parents who play with their kids enter their child's world. They discover the hopes, dreams, fears, and challenges their kids face, and they can begin communicating more. Closing that communication gap allows parents and kids to build stronger relationships that weather emotional storms and help kids thrive.

Fill a Recess Void

Thankfully, my girls' school still offers recess breaks every day, but many school take this play time away. Computers and TV screens take over at home, too, as kids spend more than seven hours in front of screens each day. That means kids are not getting enough time to release energy, reduce stress, and have fun. Play therapy can fill the recess void and give kids an excuse to play. The therapist can even give kids play homework that keeps them active between sessions.

Now that you know how play therapy can help your kids, you may be ready to use it with your children. Ask your family physician or your child's mental health professional for a referral. Play therapy sessions usually occur once a week for 30 to 50 minutes. Ideally, your child will choose the therapy activities so that they feel safe. I've seen how it works firsthand to help kids grow, thrive, and heal. How could it help the children you love?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, November 7, 2016

Growing Up Grateful: 9 Ways to Foster Gratitude in Kids

Photo by Coconino National Forest (Flickr)

Turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie make my mouth water as I think about Thanksgiving. Yum! Even more important than the food, though, is the gratitude we show at this time of year. I want my girls to grow up grateful, and there are nine specific ways in which I teach them to foster gratitude and cultivate appreciation. These tips can work for your children, too.

Start Early

It's never too soon to teach gratitude! I'm sure you've noticed that kids are naturally self-centered, but they can learn to be grateful and show appreciation. Teach your young children to say "please" and "thank you." They can do this each time you give them a snack or help them tie their shoes, and you, too, can thank your kids when they do something for you. This repetition from an early age helps your children develop a habit of gratitude that will grow as they age.

Role-Play Showing Gratitude

One of my girls is shy. As a result, she struggled a few years ago to say thank you when she received a gift. We overcame this challenge through role-playing. With stuffed animals and pretend birthday parties, she finally learned to be comfortable saying thank you. We even practiced showing thanks for a gift that wasn't exactly what she wanted. Through our role-playing, she has become a more appreciative person.

Create a Daily Gratitude Routine

Every day, our kids face dozens of opportunities to show gratitude. We decided last year to be intentional about showing thanks. Before bed every night, we share at least one thing we're thankful for about our day. Sometimes, my girls are grateful for little things like warm jackets, tacos, and friends, but last week, my daughter was grateful that her friend didn't have to go to the hospital. This daily ritual teaches my girls to be intentional about giving thanks daily.

Serve Your Community

Our children are incredibly fortunate. They are surrounded by so many blessings, and I want them to share their fortunes with others. As often as possible, we serve people in our community. We may serve food at a soup kitchen, clean up a local playground, or play with puppies at the animal shelter. I also encourage my girls to look for ways to help our neighbors. They rake leaves, bake cookies, and unload groceries as they give back and serve the community.

Thank Public Servants

Firefighters, police officers, mail carriers, bus drivers, and teachers are all examples of public servants who keep our kids safe and help them. I find that thanking public servants is a way to teach my girls to be grateful. We give gifts to their teachers, prepare goodie baskets for our local police and fire station break rooms, and make cookies for their bus driver. These acts of gratitude teach my girls to appreciate the public servants in their lives.

Start a Gratitude Bucket

Dozens of good things happen to us every day. It's easy to forget those blessings, though. So I started a gratitude bucket a few years ago to remind us to be appreciative. Every day in November, we write down three things for which we are thankful. We read the list before Thanksgiving dinner. This annual tradition is a favorite way to learn the art of appreciation.

Donated Unwanted Toys

My girls are blessed with a multitude of toys, books, and art supplies. I decided that this year, we would donate some of the items they don't use, want, or love. Donating unwanted toys is a great way for my girls to practice gratitude. We give the items to local families and organizations that are in need. I appreciate that my girls are learning to share and be grateful for their many blessings.

Thank Family Members

My girls are super-excited this month to start writing their holiday wish list. They both have clothing, toys, and other items they can't wait to receive. In addition to material gifts, though, I also want my girls to be grateful for our family members who give them gifts. I ask my girls each year to write a list of things they appreciate about their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This exercise reminds them that the people in their lives are more important than objects. The list is also a special memento for our family members.

Be a Role Model of Gratitude

I know my girls will adopt my words and actions. That means I want to be a good role model of gratitude. Every day, I attempt to show my appreciation. I thank my girls when they do their chores, I thank the grocery store clerk for bagging my groceries, and I thank my partner for picking up milk on the way home. Showing thanks in the small and big things encourages my girls to show appreciation, too.

I think it's important that our kids grow up grateful. In these nine ways, I foster gratitude in my kids. What other tips do you use to teach your kids to show appreciation and give thanks every day of the year?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

25 Simple Acts of Kindness That Kids Can Do

Photo by Angie Muldowney (Flickr)

As parents and caregivers, we want our kids to practice kindness and compassion. It's the right thing to do, and research proves that showing kindness helps us feel good, be happier, and live longer. While my girls are usually kind, they do have their moments of selfishness. There is hope for them, though! According to Barbara Fredrickson, a leading positive psychology author, people become kinder as they count the number of times they show kindness during the day. I'm excited that I can train my girls to be kind! Here's my list of 25 simple acts of kindness that my kids can do every day as they practice and learn this important life skill.

  1. Help a senior citizen or mom load groceries into their car and then return the cart to the corral.
  2. Volunteer to play with a neighbor's kids for an hour or two while the parent takes a nap, does chores, or goes on a date.
  3. Carry your neighbor's empty trash cans in from the street on trash day.
  4. Invite someone who is sitting alone to eat lunch or play with you.
  5. Show your grandparents how to use their computer or cell phone.
  6. Compliment someone every day.
  7. Do a sibling's chores for them.
  8. Give cold water bottles to the mail carrier, road workers, or sanitation crew.
  9. Pick up litter around your neighborhood, park, or school and throw it away.
  10. Write a thank-you letter to your parents, another relative, or one of your friends.
  11. Smile and say hi to someone.
  12. Buy bottles of bubbles and hand them out to kids in your neighborhood.
  13. Use part of your allowance to pay the bill for the car behind you at the drive-through or buy someone's dinner.
  14. Visit a cemetery and pull weeds or grass away from the overgrown headstones.
  15. Put a small note and popcorn money into the case of a rented movie before you return it.
  16. High-five a classmate who answers a question correctly at school.
  17. Dry the slides, swings, and other equipment at the park after it rains.
  18. Volunteer at a local pet shelter, where you can play with the animals or organize a pet food or blanket collection.
  19. Clear the table and wash, dry, and put away the dishes after dinner without being asked.
  20. Write a kind or inspiring note on a piece of paper and leave it in your favorite library book.
  21. Donate gently used clothing you've outgrown to a local family shelter. Ask your friends to donate, too.
  22. Pack your favorite dessert in your lunch box, then share it with someone who didn't bring a dessert in their lunch.
  23. Give your teacher an appreciation gift just because you want to.
  24. Let one of your siblings go first as you get on the school bus or when you go out for ice cream.
  25. Hold the door open for your family members, classmates, and other shoppers at stores.

Kindness is a trait I want my girls to show, and I can train them to be kind as we practice simple acts of kindness every day. In addition to these 25 ideas, what other kind acts could you and your children do for others?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

7 Ways That Play Builds Problem-Solving Skills

Photo by J Aaron Farr (Flickr)

As adults, we face dozens of problems every day. Will we have time to buy milk today? How do I tell my coworker that she talks too loudly? What's the fastest thing to make for dinner? Where will we go this weekend as a family to play? Solving problems is a skill every human should have, and it's one we all cultivate in childhood when we play. I watch my girls build problem-solving skills every day in seven ways.

Think Independently

I don't often tell my girls what to play because they need to make those decisions on their own. My plan is to raise girls who can think and solve problems independently.

They learn this skill as they enjoy free play and decide what playtime activities to enjoy and how to do those activities. That independence during play helps them become independent thinkers as they grow into adulthood.

Learn to Improvise

Sometimes, we only have seconds to solve a problem. In those instances, the ability to improvise comes in handy.

Kids can learn to improvise during dramatic play. The other day, I watched my girls play doctors. They didn't have their doctor kit nearby but quickly used a jump rope as a stethoscope and a scarf as a tourniquet. These improv skills will help them in the future when they have to make quick decisions.

Solve Interpersonal Problems

Almost every day, our kids face interpersonal problems as they interact with friends, siblings, and classmates. Through social play, they develop the interpersonal skills they need to solve these problems.

My girls have learned during play time to communicate, share, and compromise. They take turns being the star of the show, ask friends which game they want to play, and don't hog the swing. These skills will help them as they navigate friendships, succeed at work, and have families of their own.

Become Self-Confident

As adults, we can't ask everyone else's opinion before we solve a problem. We have to be confident that we're making the right decisions without constantly second-guessing ourselves.

I'm glad that our kids build this self-confidence as they play. They learn more about their likes, interests, values, and talents as they play games and sports. Give your kids opportunities to play and they will gain the self-confidence they need to make their own decisions.

Appreciate Other Viewpoints

Problem-solving often requires me to think about someone else. I can't decide where to eat dinner, what game to play, or when to run errands without considering my family's needs.

Play helps our kids appreciate other viewpoints. Not only do they learn to appreciate the interests, feelings, and desires of their playmates, but they also they learn about diversity and other cultures, traditions, and religions as they play. They will need to appreciate the viewpoints other people have as they solve problems in the future.

Consider the Outcomes

One of my daughters enjoys books that allow the reader to choose from several endings. There are no wrong answers, and it's like reading a different book every day!

I thought about those books today as I reflected on how play can teach our kids to be better problem-solvers. They may ask questions like, "How far will the water from this squirter reach? How many blocks can I stack before the wall falls down? If I wear sandals to hike, will my feet hurt?" Considering the outcomes as they play prepares them to question, examine, and think critically as they make decisions in their everyday life.

Learn to Make Mistakes

Sometimes, we won't make the right decision, and that's OK. Learning to make mistakes and dealing with the consequences is part of life. That's why I allow my girls to make mistakes as they play. For instance, one time, they pretended they worked in a hair salon and cut their dolls' hair. They learned a hard lesson that day, but I would rather they make mistakes and learn than not play or take any action at all.

Play is important for childhood. I appreciate that it helps my girls become build problem-solving skills in seven key ways. How does play help your kids become better at solving problems?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, October 14, 2016

Wearable Wonders: 5 Benefits of Dress-Up Play for Children

Photo by The Wu's Photo Land (Flickr)

Ever since they were young, my girls have enjoyed playing dress-up. Sure, they like wearing costumes at Halloween, but they also dive into our dress-up bin during the year. One day, they pretend they're firefighters, and the next day, they're princesses. While they have fun transforming into different characters, they also gain five important benefits as they play.

Dress-Up Fosters Imagination

When kids dress up, they can be anyone and live anywhere as they create characters, scenarios, and storylines. Their play time allows them to explore other realities and take on unique roles. And it doesn't matter if their stories make sense because they're being creative.

Encourage your kids to imagine when you provide them with costumes and props. You can even give them story ideas or let them create their own scenarios as you foster their imaginations.

Dress-Up Builds Empathy

It's important to me that my girls understand other people. I want them to be sympathetic and kind as well as supportive of other lifestyles and cultures. This empathy helps them to be successful in school, friendships, and life, and they learn this lesson while playing dress-up.

In costumes, kids can be people or animals from different countries. They also explore a variety of social situations and emotions that help them empathize with others and practice patience, tolerance, and kindness. I'm grateful that with a few costumes, my girls can become more compassionate people.

Dress-Up Develops Communication Skills

As doctors, Martians, or dancers, kids have to think about what their character will say and effectively communicate the character's mindset, values, and wants. I've even heard my girls deliver their dialogues in an accent and say phrases and words they don't normally use.

Communication happens when kids play dress-up solo, too, since they typically act out stories with their stuffed animals or imaginary friends. Thanks to dress-up play, our kids develop better communication skills and are more prepared for success in everyday life.

Dress-Up Improves Creative Thinking

My girls take dress-up very seriously. They outline detailed stories and scenes that really stretch their creative thinking skills. In fact, last weekend, they imagined that they were doctors and created an entire hospital in our playroom.

It's fun for me to watch them problem-solve, negotiate, and become confident expressing themselves. The creative thinking skills they learn now will assist them in life as they think outside of the box to solve problems and find solutions quickly.

Dress-Up Encourages Self-Discovery

Kids who pretend they are someone else actually learn more about themselves and their identity. They can figure out their emotions, values, and self-worth as they play. For example, while playing a teacher, they may learn that they like helping others learn, and while playing a villain, they may see how selfishness hurts others.

Dress-up also helps kids become confident in who they are. It allows them to take charge, make mistakes, and develop a unique style. I appreciate that dress-up encourages self-discovery and helps my girls develop a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-identity.

Playing dress-up is a fun activity that gives kids five key benefits. I know I love hearing my girls giggle, talk, and cooperate with each other as they wear costumes. What other things could dress-up play help your kids learn this Halloween and every day?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, October 3, 2016

10 Simple Ways to Thank a Teacher

Photo by US Department of Education (Flickr)

Teachers work long hours as they teach, counsel, and inspire our children to succeed. I know I rely on my girls' teachers a great deal! Whether your kids are in elementary school, junior high, or high school, say "thank you" to their teachers in 10 simple ways.

Buy a Book

Book fairs are popular school fundraisers, so ask your teacher to create a wish list and buy a book or two from it as a thank-you gift. Include a handmade bookmark saying, "In my book, you're the best!"

Choose a Gift Card

Does your child's teacher like coffee, movies, or clothing? Give them a gift card to a restaurant, store, or mall. Teachers also appreciate gift cards to craft, office supply, and educational supply stores.

Volunteer in the Classroom

Most teachers appreciate extra help in the classroom. When possible, I try to volunteer for class parties, field trips, and other events. It's a small gesture many teachers appreciate.

Write an Appreciative and Honest Note

Years ago, my daughter's kindergarten teacher showed me a box of notes and drawings he had received over the years. They reminded him of why he teaches and prompted us to start a family tradition of writing a personalized letter to each teacher. It includes what my girls liked best about the class, what they learned, and other special memories from the year.

Give a Plant

Thank your child's teacher for helping them bloom when you give flowers. This token of appreciation can be a live bouquet, bulbs, herbs, or a potted plant in a personalized container.

Buy Classroom Supplies

At the beginning of the school year, my girls sometimes bring home a list of classroom supplies their teacher needs. I'm happy to fill a bag with pencils, tissues, and hard candy as I support the teachers and give a small gift that shows my appreciation.

Supply Healthy Snacks

According to my teacher friends, they sometimes are so busy that they don't eat lunch. Fuel your kids' teachers with a supply of healthy snacks. Granola, dried fruit, nuts, whole-grain crackers, and bottled water are a few suggestions.

Create a Handmade Gift

Do you or your child have a special talent? Knit a blanket, paint a picture frame, or build a birdhouse as you use your talents to create a handmade, one-of-a-kind thank-you gift.

Give to Charity in the Teacher's Name

My older daughter's phys ed teacher ran a half marathon this year to raise awareness for breast cancer. We made a donation in her name to thank her for being a positive role model. You, too, can donate to a charity in your teacher's name and support their favorite cause.

Just Say "Thank You"

Never underestimate the act of a heartfelt verbal "thank you." I encourage my girls to say "thank you" often, and I end every email I send to my daughter's teachers with those two words. I hope they convey my sincere gratitude and appreciation for the positive effect teachers have on my girls.

Teachers give our kids the educational tools they need to succeed. Saying "thank you" in these 10 simple ways demonstrates our appreciation. What other teacher appreciation ideas do you have?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, September 26, 2016

Happy Harvest: 9 Playful Ways to Savor Autumn

Photo by Dominic Rivard (Flickr)

Autumn is one of my favorite seasons! I can smell the apple dumplings, hear the leaves crunching under my feet, and see the vibrant autumn colors everywhere. It's truly a season for the senses and is perfect for play. My girls and I enjoy savoring the happy harvest season in many playful ways.

Go for a Hike

Gorgeous leaf colors are a highlight of autumn, so we always plan a few hikes through wooded areas. I often use a fall scavenger hunt checklist that helps my girls observe nature, enjoy the colors, and spot wildlife enjoying the abundant harvest, too.

Pick Apples

Local orchards in our area encourage customers to pick their own apples. I appreciate the opportunity to show my girls where our favorite autumn fruit comes from, support small businesses, and have fun.

Play in a Pile of Leaves

We have a big tree in our backyard, and every year, we rake the leaves into a pile and spend hours jumping into it. When my girls were young, I'd toss a toy into the pile and challenge them to find it. They get so much exercise playing in the leaf pile!

Carve Pumpkins

Pumpkin-carving is a tradition in our home. We even hold a contest to see who can carve the most unique design. Need ideas? Let your kids carve their favorite cartoon character or the family pet. They can also color, paint, or apply stickers to the pumpkins. And don't forget to save the seeds and toast a tasty and healthy treat!

Preserve Leaves

Collecting and preserving leaves inspires creativity, hones fine motor skills, and encourages your kids to appreciate nature's beauty. We've pressed leaves and made homemade wrapping paper, hanging mobiles, and leaf wreaths. What projects might you make with your preserved leaf collection?

Bob for Apples

I didn't bob for apples until I was in college, and I was determined that my kids would enjoy this fun activity before they reach adulthood. Every year, we bob for apples. It's a fun activity that always leaves us laughing and provides a crisp, tasty, and healthy snack.

Mold Leaf Clay Bowls

Molding clay or play dough is a fun activity my girls enjoy year-round. When autumn comes, we head outside and mold leaf bowls. They learn more about the science of leaves, symmetry, and art, and we have fun.

Enjoy a Campfire

Cooler evening temperatures invite your family to start a campfire and enjoy an evening in nature. You can roast marshmallows, tell scary stories, or chat about your favorite autumn activities as you laugh, talk, and bond.

Host a Harvest Party

Last year, my girls asked if they could host a small harvest party for a few neighborhood friends. It turned into a big block party with seasonal dishes, games, and crafts, and we're already planning this year's celebration. Go meet your neighbors and have fun with your own neighborhood harvest party.

Autumn is one of my favorite seasons. In our home, we savor autumn with these playful activities. What does your family do to enjoy a happy harvest?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, September 19, 2016

5 Refreshing Nature Play Gurus on Twitter

Photo by Tom Woodward (Flickr)

Playing outside refreshes, invigorates, and entertains kids. I know my kids and I have fun and feel less stressed after we spend time playing outside. Because nature's so beneficial, I follow several outdoor and nature play advocates on Twitter. They encourage kids and families to play outdoors more often and enjoy the numerous benefits of nature. You may wish to follow them, too!

Children & Nature Network @ChildrenNature

The Children & Nature Network believes that nature play is important for kids around the globe. That's why their Twitter feed provides fantastic resources for parents, educators, and kids about why everyone should play more outdoors. Access this resource as you connect with nature and other families and play more!

National Wildlife Federation @NWF

The National Wildlife Federation focuses primarily on nature and animals. However, when you read its Twitter feed, you'll find a variety of information about hiking, camping, outdoor play safety, and other nature activities. Its tweets also inspire educators to incorporate nature and outdoor activities into the curriculum and teach kids about conservation.

Debi Huang @GoExploreNature

Read engaging info about play for kids and parents when you follow Debi Huang. You'll also get travel tips that help you play more as you explore local and not-so-local destinations. While her tweets are designed to introduce families in the Los Angeles area to the great outdoors, they're useful no matter where you live.

Maman on the Trail @mamanonthetrail

Canadian mom Monica is passionate about the outdoors and believes that every person should combat "nature deficit disorder" by spending time each day outside. Her Twitter feed includes tips, tricks, anecdotes, and reviews about hiking with her baby, husband, and dog. You'll discover something new and be motivated to play more outside as you follow her adventures.

Bluearth @Movemoreaust

The Australian health initiative started by Bluearth strives to get people moving. It offers tips and activities that promote physical literacy and combat the negative health effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Get inspired to move more and have fun when you follow Bluearth.

National Park Service @NatlParkService

Find a nearby park, plan your next family vacation, or explore the great outdoors when you follow the National Park Service. Its feed includes useful information for families, educators, and anyone interested in connecting with nature, including details about the Every Kid in a Park pass that gives fourth-grade students free access to parks.

Early Play @earlyplay

Early childhood is a time when kids are developing quickly. They're also filled with energy. Enter the early play blog. Here, you'll find educational and entertaining activities for young kids, families, and parents as well as encouragement to get outside and play more.

Bethe Almeras @balmeras

Also known as the Grass Stain Guru, Bethe writes primarily about the power of play, nature, and laughter. Check out the interview she did with us, and learn more about the importance of unplugged play and other outdoor childhood fun.

U.S. Forest Service @forestservice

The U.S. Forest Service protects and manages national forests and grasslands. It uses Twitter to discuss outdoor education topics, ways to improve wildlife and urban areas, and conservation tips. Your family can learn how to enjoy nature and keep it accessible for generations thanks to the Forest Service.

These nine voices for outdoor and nature play use Twitter to encourage play. I appreciate their contributions and am privileged to share them with you as you incorporate more outdoor play in your regular routine!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

7 Ways to Make More Time for Play During the School Year

Photo by Scott & Elaine van der Chijs (Flickr)

The new school year has started, and that means busy evenings eating dinner, doing homework, and driving to activities. If you're like us, your schedule is packed. Do your kids have time to play? Our children spend six to eight hours a day in class, and they need more opportunities to unwind, relax, and play. Add several or all of these seven activities to make more time for play during the school year.

Walk to School and Play

We live close enough to school that we can walk there most days, and my girls know our mornings will include walking games like Follow the Leader, I Spy, or hopscotch. The other kids who walk with us like playing, too, as I prompt my girls to get more exercise and play before they hit the books.

Visit the Playground After School

Last year, I noticed that my daughters came home after school and bounced off the walls. Because their energy was intense, I started making a daily detour to the local playground for 15 to 20 minutes of free play. They burn off their extra energy, decompress, and have fun and are then ready to focus on homework or chores. Our evenings go a lot more smoothly because we make time for play after school.

Turn Homework Into Game Time

My younger daughter usually has a long list of spelling words to memorize, which is a big struggle for her. I decided to use games to make homework time fun. In our playroom, I post big letters made out of card stock and give her a word. She has to run around the room and find the letters that spell the word. She has fun, learns her spelling words, and is encouraged to play more.

Consider Adopting a Pet

Not all families are able to commit to owning a pet. However, if your family is ready for this responsibility, consider adopting a cat, dog, or other animal. Pets can improve your health as they reduce stress, and they promote physical activity.

Play Word Games During Dinner

In our home, we try our best to eat dinner together. I like hearing about my girls' day at school as we discuss their classes, friends, current events, and other topics. I also recently discovered another fun activity we can enjoy during dinner: word games! Hangman, Scrabble, Jumble, and crossword puzzles are fun, and as a bonus, my girls get to practice their spelling and vocabulary words while we eat.

Enroll in a Sport

Many schools offer sports clubs after school. If yours does, enroll your kids and let them play football, basketball, or soccer. You can also sign them up to play in an intramural league in your town or buy a gym membership. The exercise after school reduces stress and the risk of obesity and gives your kids more opportunities to play.

Play Often on the Weekends

Play may take a backseat during the busy school week, but you have two whole days on the weekends to make up for it. Plan hikes, visit playgrounds, host play dates with friends, organize neighborhood soccer games, or volunteer to play with dogs at your local animal shelter as you enjoy playful weekends.

My girls love school, but they also need to play. We all enjoy these seven ways to make more time for play during the school year. What other play activities could your kids enjoy?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

7 Ideas for Finding More Local Play Opportunities

Photo by Mark Turner (Flickr)

Are you and your kids playing enough? Government physical fitness guidelines recommend that kids ages six to 17 get 60 minutes of aerobic exercise every day and adults should get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day. It's easy to stay active when you play: Try out these ideas for local activities that can keep your family moving and having fun!

Join the Local YMCA

Founded in 1844 as a safe refuge for local tenement boys, the YMCA continues its tradition of caring for communities even today. You'll find exercise, nutrition, and parenting classes as well as a variety of activities and meet-up opportunities for adults and kids that promote safe and healthy communities. Thanks to the YMCA, your entire family stays active, and you'll meet people like you who are committed to play.

Look for Other Parents on Facebook

Facebook offers more than an online tool to stay connected with family members and friends or play games. A few years ago, I organized a local parents group on Facebook, and we arranged play dates, organized game nights, and shared outing ideas. The friendships I've built in our Facebook group enrich my life and help me play more! I highly recommend you find or start one today.

Adopt a Playground

In my area, local municipalities are in charge of public playground maintenance, but that doesn't prevent people from littering. My girls and I decided last year to adopt a playground near our house. It's fun and rewarding to keep our playground clean, since we and other families can enjoy it after we're done. Is there a playground near your home that you and your kids could adopt?

Visit Dog Parks

Some dogs like to make friends with everyone they meet, so head to your local dog park as a family. Your furry friend will get exercise, and you'll meet fellow dog owners who also love to play. Are you like us and don't have a dog? My girls and I always make new furry and human friends during our regular dog park visits.

Participate in Library Activities

When my girls were little, we attended preschool story time at our local library. They enjoyed the story and activities that promoted play. Today, our library offers even more programs for families, including a summer drama program and children's craft hours. You can also create a scavenger hunt that requires your kids to search the library for different books, pictures, or information, offer to teach a playful class on weekends, or form a kids' or adults' game club as you play at the library.

Check Out the Community Center

When I was a kid, our local community center hosted fundraising dinners for the fire department and other social events. We're privileged in our current community to have a center that also offers after-school tutoring, senior activities, and family game nights. If you don't have a community center near you, check out your local senior living centers, housing developments, or churches to meet new people to play with!

Introduce More Playability in Your Area

Many local communities offer a variety of play opportunities, but what if yours doesn't? I challenge you to take action and introduce more playability in your area. Research organizations like Kaboom! that are dedicated to community play, then engage with community leaders as you discuss ways to offer more play options in your area. Be the change you want to see when you take action to introduce playability in your community.

Play is important for your kids and you. Are you getting enough play? These seven ideas can help you find more local play opportunities as you stay active and have fun together.

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, August 29, 2016

7 Ways That Play and Imagination Help a Child Thrive

Photo by [kajsa] (Flickr)

As a child, I remember dressing up in my mom's clothes and high heels and pretending I was a grown-up. I'd sit at my desk and "work," then drive home on my sofa car to make dinner in my play kitchen. Those moments of imaginative play kept me busy and sparked my creativity. Now that I have kids of my own, I do all I can to encourage them to play because their creativity and imagination can help them grow and thrive in many ways.

Connect With the World

The other day, my girls pretended they were on a safari to Africa. They used an old box as a Jeep, drew zebras and giraffes on poster board, and even took turns pretending that they were the animals. Their activities that day reminded me that play does connect our kids to our world and teaches them about diversity. Through make-believe, singing, acting, and crafts, our kids learn about different continents, cultures, and people, and they become more empathetic and understanding. Maybe my girls will never travel in real life to Africa, but they sure did make the continent come to life in our living room last week.

Improve Communication Skills

Interactive songs with motions were some of the first imaginary games I played with my girls. They loved rolling their arms like the wheels on the bus, and we made dozens of patty-cakes every day.

These creative games and other fun play activities laid the foundation for improved communication skills. Not only did my girls learn to talk as we played, but they also learned to express their thoughts, emotions, needs, and wants. Even today, they continue to learn to use their words in a variety of situations as they develop their communication skills.

Learn to Express Emotions Properly

Kids aren't born with the ability to identify, discuss, or regulate their emotions. I use creative and imaginary play to help my girls learn more about their emotions and to learn how to express them properly.

For example, we used dolls, especially when my girls were younger, to talk about feelings and learn to empathize with others. And I've found that bracelet-making, drawing, and building defuses anxiety and stress. Whether they're happy, sad, excited, shocked, or angry, kids can use creative and imaginary play to learn, express, and manage their emotions in a healthy way.

Improve Social Skills

It can be challenging for kids to navigate social situations. Play has helped my girls learn to meet new people, build friendships, and handle conflict.

As they choose a game they both enjoy, they learn to negotiate, and make-believe play allows them to act out social scenes. My girls have expanded their social skills and their social circle as they play.

Learn to Repurpose

During imaginative play, my girls get creative with common objects around the house. Towels become superhero capes, stuffed animals act as hospital patients, and cardboard tubes turn into binoculars. For extra fun, I keep a prop box and change the contents every few weeks to keep my girls' imaginations active as they play.

I appreciate watching my kids repurpose common objects. This ability helps them think creatively and problem-solve, a valuable life skill, and it reduces waste and protects the earth.

Improve Problem-Solving Skills

When my girls were toddlers, I bought them a huge box of building blocks. They had fun building castles, roads, and rockets, and they learned to solve problems as they maneuvered the blocks to stack them on top of each other.

Problem-solving is an important skill for kids to develop, and they learn this skill as they put puzzles together, create clay objects, and act out scenarios where the princess escapes from the dragon and lives happily ever after. The problem-solving skills they learn now will help them succeed in all areas of life.

Become Independent

I realized when my girls were babies that my main focus as a mom was to teach my kids independence that would help them thrive as adults. I'm grateful that imaginative and creative play teaches them this skill.

Give your kids control over the books they read, stories they make up, and fantasy worlds they create. This autonomy during play equips them to be independent later in life and prepares them for future success.

Our kids thrive in seven areas when they play and use their imagination. How will you encourage your kids to play and thrive today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Experts Love Play! 5 Exciting Scholarly Studies on the Benefits of Play

Photo by Angela Vincent (Flickr)

Play is important for kids. It's so important, in fact, that I've spent my career advocating for play. And I'm not the only person who thinks play is necessary and beneficial. Hundreds of experts love play, too. Read more about some scholarly studies that prove the benefits of play and learn why play is so important for the children we know and love.

The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development

Kids thrive when their caregivers play with them. I know my girls tell me that they feel more secure and loved when we play together, and scientists agree. They performed a study that explores how play gives parents and kids an ideal venue for engagement, and the study's results also discuss the importance of solo play and self-guided play. I encourage caregivers to use this research to discover tips for how to interact and play more with your kids.

The Crucial Role of Recess in Schools

In my opinion, kids need recess. Without it, they have trouble focusing and concentrating, and behavioral problems increase. One study revealed several benefits of recess. It explored numerous articles and concluded that recess gives kids a necessary break from the academic rigors they face. Unstructured recess is especially beneficial since it boosts children's creative, emotional, and social development. My girls and all of the students, teachers, and caregivers we know appreciate that this research supports recess in schools.

Effects of "Greenness" on Children's Cognitive Functioning

Nature has a powerful effect on kids. When my girls get bored, feel upset, or start arguing, we head outside, where they almost immediately feel calmer and more relaxed. Kids need nature, and one study examined the role nature plays in a child's well-being. Researchers found that kids whose homes included greenness showed increased levels of cognitive functioning. If you want your kids to be smarter, send them outside into nature where they can play, explore, and learn.

A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

As many as one in 10 kids have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These children have trouble concentrating and focusing in and out of school, which inhibits their ability to learn and achieve. Play can ease their symptoms and help them succeed in life. In one study, kids who played after school and on weekends experienced fewer ADHD symptoms. If a child you care for has ADHD, provide plenty of play time.

Health Benefits From Free Play Confirmed by Research

If your kids are like mine, they enjoy transforming craft supplies, cardboard, and other trinkets into toys. It turns out that there's a scientific reason for this behavior. Inexpensive items, including crates and buckets, are effective at encouraging children to be active and creative. Kids who play with simple, everyday objects become more active, experience creativity boosts, and enjoy improved problem-solving abilities. There's nothing wrong with expensive toys, but your kids will learn and develop as they play with cheap everyday items, too.

Experts love play, and these five scholarly studies outline the benefits of play and prove that play is important. As caregivers, we should agree and let our kids play and explore. What will you do to encourage play today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Little Feet, Big Adventure: 9 Tips for Hiking With Kids

Photo by Loren Kerns (Flickr)

Hiking is one of those outdoor activities that is perfect, fun exercise for almost everyone. Hikers can enjoy many different settings and the benefits of fresh air, natural wonders, and physical activity. My girls and I started hiking when they were babies, and these tips ensure every hike is a big adventure for little feet.

1. Choose a Scenic Hike

When there is nothing to see except trees or rocks, your kids will get bored. I recommend you choose a scenic hike with a pond, creek, or waterfall, or select a spot that's known for wildlife sightings. Bring your binoculars, camera, and magnifying glass and engage with natural wonders to keep kids excited.

2. Dress for the Weather

One time, my girls and I didn't check the weather forecast before our hike and ended up soaking wet and very upset. I learned that day to always plan for the worst and dress for the weather. We take hats, gloves, and a rain coat if necessary, and wear sturdy shoes, cotton socks, and layered clothing. I suggest packing extra sock, just in case.

3. Pack Safety Essentials

The one time I didn't pack bug spray, we encountered dozens of mosquitoes! Now, I never leave home without a small bag of safety essentials. It includes bug spray, of course, and first aid supplies like pain reliever, bandages, tweezers, and antihistamine. I also pack sunscreen, anti-bacterial wipes, and a whistle.

4. Rotate Leaders

I admit that I like to be in charge, but I also want my girls to develop leadership skills, exercise independence, and gain a sense of responsibility. That's why we rotate leaders during hikes. We take turns setting the pace and acting as a tour guide as we have fun.

5. Plan a Scavenger Hunt

Even though we rarely hike the same trail twice, my girls do sometimes get bored on the trail. That's why I usually plan a scavenger hunt. It keeps them focused, engaged, and it's educational. You can customize your list based on your children's ages and interests, and the area that you're hiking in. My list typically includes different flowers, leaves, and animals, as well as a variety of colors, textures, and shapes.

6. Take Energy Breaks and Stay Hydrated

The last time I checked, hungry or thirsty kids are cranky kids! Energy breaks help your kids stay motivated and happy. I pack granola bars, peanuts, and jerky, along with plenty of water. Feel free to vary your hiking snacks based on your kids' preferences and any allergens.

7. Prepare for Anything

During one of our hikes, my youngest daughter accidentally fell into a mud puddle. I was glad I had an extra change of clothes in the trunk! Another time, one of my girls got distracted by a butterfly, walked off the trail in hot pursuit, and panicked when she finally stopped and realized she couldn't see us. Now, we all carry whistles. Your family hikes will be more successful when you prepare for anything.

8. Be Patient

For every one step you take, your small kids have to take three steps. Plus, they have less stamina and may tire before you're even winded, and you know they'll want to stop every time they see or hear something interesting. Patience is essential when you hike with kids! Try slowing down, using a carrier if you have small kids, and focusing on exploration rather than reaching a destination as you enjoy nature. Relax and take the time to experience the hike together.

9. Leave No Trace

Our kids will one day be Earth's caretakers, and it's our duty to make sure they know how to be good stewards. My girls know that we collect all our trash as we leave no trace. They've even made a game of finding trash on the trails we hike because we want to leave the trails cleaner than we found them. I carry an extra garbage bag to make this much easier can hygienic.

My family loves to hike. It's big adventure for little feet. Start having fun with your family when you follow these nine family hiking tips. And if you have other hiking tips for kids, share them with us!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Young at Heart: 7 Ways for Adults to Nurture Their Inner Child

Photo by MarkScottAustinTX (Flickr)

Some days, I feel very old. Today was one of those days. My kids asked me to blow bubbles with them after dinner, and all I could see was a pile of dishes, bills, and dust bunnies screaming my name. Have you ever felt that way? Instead of getting stuck in adulthood, let's rediscover our youthfulness and relearn how to play. As we cultivate play in our daily lives, we'll also become more imaginative, resourceful, and relaxed. Who's in? Here are seven playful ways to become young at heart.

Play With Your Kids

Whether you chase lightning bugs, build a giant city of blocks, or assemble a puzzle, play helps you feel young. It also relieves stress and reminds you that life really isn't all about work, bills, and cleaning. Life is fun, and it's good to be alive. I'm grateful that play time with my kids reminds me of these facts.

Color

Coloring books aren't just for kids. Adult coloring books have gotten very popular and are available in almost every retail store. Find one with animals, mandalas, or inspirational quotes, and take time to get creative and relax the stress away. No one cares if you stay inside the lines, and you'll have fun as you enjoy the health benefits of coloring.

Go Outside

When was the last time you spent time outside? I'm a huge outdoor play advocate because fresh air provides our bodies with so many benefits, and it's fun, too. Make time today to hike, swim, camp, and explore the great outdoors. Adventure awaits, and it's time to spark your youthful spirit.

Upcyle Old Stuff

I spent some time looking around my basement last weekend, and I found a bunch of treasures. The changing table my girls used when they were babies will make a great entertainment center, and one of our old dining room chairs can be hung on the wall and used as a pot and pan holder. What old items do you have in your house that could be upcycled? Pull your creativity and curiosity out of hiding when you upcycle. These projects allow you to be innovative and resourceful, and you'll have fun as you create unique recycled goods.

Celebrate

When my girls were little, I celebrated every accomplishment: their first word, their first step, and even their first tinkle in the potty. So why not celebrate today? Birthdays, holidays, or any day is a great time to celebrate the fact that life is good. Plan a party for no reason or treat yourself to a celebration today. You'll feel happier, healthier, and youthful.

Join a Club

Are you into sports, books, or knitting? Join a civic, community, hobby, or spiritual group and spend time cultivating your interests. You'll have fun, find satisfaction, and feel more positive as you enjoy doing something you love. As a bonus, your club membership allows you to meet like-minded people who share your interests, remind you that you are important, and revitalize your passions.

Learn Something New

It's easy for us adults to get stuck in a rut. Spice up your routine, take back your life, and learn something new. Try a new recipe for dinner, learn how to speak Portuguese, or take flying lessons. Reignite your inner child as you learn something new today.

No matter how old you are in biological years, you can be young at heart. I encourage you to do one of these seven playful activities. They're fun and remind you that you are creative, innovative, and resourceful, so let's play today!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

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